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Automating languages and translation

By Jean-Claude Elias - Jul 05,2018 - Last updated at Jul 05,2018

You probably use Google Translate online service or mobile application every now and then. You also must have noticed the recent online ads that promise to let you learn and speak a new language in a few weeks. How good, how true is all that?

The global, connected world is making it more important than ever to understand, to speak several languages and also to be able to translate between them automatically, instantly. It is all about communication, and the importance of the subject cannot be overstated. Whereas some good digital tools are available to address the need, the result often is mediocre; average in the best case.

The difficulty lies in the fact that speaking or translating involves extremely complex processes, a non-negligible amount of data or knowledge, culture, and finally art, or style as it is better called. The first two elements can be handled by digital tool and computers, and usually are processed relatively well in an automated manner. As for the last two, culture and style, well… we (i.e. computers) are not there yet.

The massive amount of information available in search engines such as Google, and the speed at which it can obtained, typically a mere fraction of a second, has made possible what was absolutely unthinkable only one generation ago. The speed of processing that is commonly found in even the cheapest laptop computer, tablet or smartphone is also  flabbergasting.

The combination of the above two elements has provided digital translation tools that are great, but still cannot replace or compete with what a seasoned, professional translator human being can achieve.

For the time being and until further dramatic development in the technology, automated translation and human translation are living in parallel, each satisfying different needs and demands. If you just want to have an idea of what this text in Dutch means in English, what it is about, and you do not care about syntax, grammar and style, then Google Translate may be a practical solution. Keeping in mind that even in such case significant errors in the meaning of the text may occur from time to time — you know that you must be careful and not use the translation in any formal manner or bet your life on it.

Automated vocal translation can also be helpful if you are in a foreign country where you cannot speak their language and just need directions, for example. Speak your question in your native language in your smartphone’s microphone and the phone will say the answer out loud in the country’s language. Very convenient if you are lost or need basic, simple information!

Still, interpretation at conferences is still handled by human beings.

When it comes to translating formal documents for official use, when perfect grammar and style matter, when you are translating a book, a novel, or doing subtitles for a movie, only human translation is the answer. It is interesting to note the pristine quality of the Arabic subtitles in the movies available on Netflix. The network must be paying well and hiring first-class human translators to do the work. Netflix deserves kudos for that. Excellent subtitles are not often seen in the movies. 

Apart from Google Translate that is made to handle general text, there are specialised online services that are more precise for they take into consideration the context and the specific type of the subject being translated: legal, medical, technical, archaeology, engineering, arts, etc. Linguee is one of them. By analysing the context, Linguee provides more accurate translation, but again, you must be ready to forgo style and perfect syntax.

Online services like Babbel claim they can make you speak a language in three weeks. Naturally, they use digital tools and up-to-date methods to speed up the learning process, and this is understandable. There is also little doubt that thanks to the online, interactive, multimedia tools they can now make you learn any language much faster than before. The rest is a matter of opinion, to say the least.

It still takes years and years to pretend to be able really to properly speak a language, to understand its spirit, its flavour, the idioms, the accent, all the culture and the history behind it, etc. Perhaps Babbel and other similar services can make you “start” to learn a new language in three weeks! Technology is on its way, but you have to know where it starts and where it ends.

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